Graphic Lit: The manga of Takehiko Inoue
Those who work in or follow the American comics industry tend to get all giddy when a particular comic book or graphic novel hits the best-seller list or breaks the 100,000 unit mark in sales.
That’s all chump change to manga artist Takehiko Inoue, whose 31-volume basketball series “Slam Dunk” sold more than 100 million copies in Japan. Let me repeat that for extra emphasis: that’s 100 million copies. It was so popular it not only spawned the usual cartoon shows and films, but single-handedly brought about a huge surge of interest in the sport in Japan.
Now “Slam Dunk” is here in the United States, courtesy of Viz (a previous attempt to publish the series by the late Gutsoon! Entertainment never got very far).
It’s not too hard to see why “Dunk” was such a success. It’s a light-hearted, occasionally hilarious sports story that plays on traditional cliches (likable neophyte becomes enamored with sport and works his way up through the ranks against all odds) while adding enough characterization and plot development to keep from becoming stale.
The story centers on sullen tough guy and high school student Hanamachi Sakuragi, who is so unlucky in love he’d settle for just being able to carry a girl’s books home.
So when cute student Haruko takes an interest in the big lug and asks if he, by any chance, plays basketball, it isn’t too long before Hanamachi finds himself trying out for the school team.
It turns out Hanamachi has a talent for the sport, but he’s more than a little cocky, and he bristles up against the coach (who just happens to be Haruko’s brother) and upcoming star player (who Haruko just happens to have a crush on).
All this could come off as rote and tired, but Inoue infuses the manga with humor and warmth. He gets a lot of mileage by making his characters reasonably flawed.
After finishing “Slam Dunk,” Inoue followed up with two more realistic and adult-oriented series, “Real” and “Vagabond.”
Like “Dunk,” “Real” is a basketball manga, though its tone is much more serious.
The main characters are Nomiya, a goofy high school dropout who feels guilt over a motorcycle accident that left a young woman paralyzed, and Togawa, an angry young man who is confined to a wheelchair after a bout with bone cancer. Though antagonists at first, they bond over their mutual love of basketball.
If all that’s not enough, there’s the subplot involving the jerky basketball team leader whose spur of the moment bicycle theft leads him to become — you guessed it — paralyzed.
Though Inoue’s art is more detailed and realistic here, a lot of the humor has been drained. As a result, “Real” has a pretentious, melodramatic feel that drags it down. Unlike “Dunk,” in “Real” the traditional boys manga cliches tend to overwhelm the work — you can see plot twists coming a mile away. Worse yet, you get the feeling Inoue is taking himself a bit too seriously.
Much better is “Vagabond,” Inoue’s adaptation of Eiji Yoshikawa’s novel “Musashi,” a fictional biography of Japan’s most renowned samurai, Miyamoto Musashi.
Like “Real,” “Vagabond” is a much more adult and serious manga.
The real draw, however, is Inoue’s art, which is rarely anything less than sumptuous. Though bloody, “Vagabond” has a compelling, elegant feel that draws the reader in. Ultimately, I prefer the visual horseplay of “Slam Dunk,” but “Vagabond” has enough going for it to warrant your attention.
Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008